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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ June 2021

The Kitchen Garden’s new plants began to spread their skirts and familiarise themselves with their surroundings. The Phyla nodiflora, an odd little creeping ground cover plant of the verbena family commonly known as Texas , is claiming the ‘dirty paths’ at a rate of knots. Its delightful small white flower with its purple centre brings to mind the amethyst rosette of a wedding ring. Although an invasive species in Australia , it is slightly tender so we’re unlikely to have a problem here; the leaves are medicinal and can be used for a tea, so if its enthusiasm needs curbing, we can always harvest and put the kettle on.   

Tom Stuart Smith’s choices of thymes dotted in clumps through the gravel seem to be cleverly timed for each to come into flower as the previous species fades. Our particular favourite Thymus coccineus has a very deep pink, long-lasting flower. All the xeric [suited to a dry habitat] herbs in the paths have taken well, with the surprise exception of some of the rosemary varieties. We were unfamiliar with  Scotch Lovage (Ligustum scoticum)  and Great Pignut (Bunium bulbocastanum), a native of Western Europe historically eaten either raw or cooked as a root vegetable. It is said to taste like sweet chestnuts. Their white umbel flowers reminiscent of cow parsley have been alive with all manner of pollinators, so they are evidently a rich nectar source too. 

Our focus had to turn from the plantings to the preparations for our inaugural Garden Safari. The Old Apple Store was to be the venue but, since it was previously used as a chicken run and housed enumerable ‘possibly-useful-later’ items, it needed some attention. Some bustle and digging, sweeping and furniture collecting ensued, and we were ready to welcome our first twenty-four guests. Our remit is to tell the story so far in the garden. We discussed the ways in which Tom’s vision will kickstart natural processes, and our role within the ecosystem: to releas our dominion over it  and embrace its changes, or, as James Hitchmough puts it, “gardening in the grey”. 

There’s nothing better for galvanising knowledge than spending a day with a collection of inquiring minds. We stood with the group surveying the Regency-built walled garden, Tom’s sketched impression on an easel in the foreground. To view the Pool Garden still intact with immaculate croquet lawn, beds alive with lavender and flowering yucca spires, a leap of imagination is needed to superimpose over it all Tom’s intricate planting plan of the mounds and gullies of crushed concrete that will replace it. “Is there not a lot of biodiversity here already?” one guest enquired. At this time of the year, it’s true there are a wealth of nectar sources available but the lawn’s flat, two-dimensional aspect will be supplanted with a three-dimensional landscape of four aspects, and five hundred genu and species [replacing around forty at present]. Add to that a habitat spectrum from dry, sunny, nutrient-poor through to moist, shady, nutrient-rich, we are hoping to do very much betterin terms of biodiversity, providing much more complex and varied habitats in this confined space and for a very much longer season. This is all about shifting baselines. We may think our gardens are doing well in providing for insects, birds and other species – but, almost always, our gardens could be providing much, much more.

Early one morning we discovered Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, checking a moth trap he’d set up in the garden the previous evening.  He had some beautiful specimens, notably a Great Oak Beauty, Pine Hawkmoth and a stunning Peach Blossom Moth which he’s only seen once in ten years. But he declared his recording of the thirty-four species out of a total count of ninety-nine moths as “pathetic”, compared to what he would have seen as a child.  As a collector for fiftyyears, he’s well aware of the 40% decline in moth numbers in southern England .  

Peach Blossom Moth Thyatira batis 

Despite the first crops of peas and beans being harvested and the sweet peas peeking open their hooded flowers, Midsummers Day on the 21st found us blanketed and miserable from the cold rains. The Met Office summary told us that rainfall was over double the average for much of the South-East this month, and whilst we were thankful to be freed from irrigation duties to establish the new planting, much of their growth was battered into horizontal submission. 

When gaps in the clouds allowed, the formal box “umphs” around the North Terrace of the house succumbed to their annual clipping, the beginning of a five-to-six-week marathon. Stuart arrived with his small digger, and the plant removal of the Pool Garden’s long border began.  

Whilst it’s a sad pursuit to uproot a perfectly healthy plant, many of them found other welcoming homes. And we’re mindful of our roles as imitators of Knepp’s keystone species, those drivers of natural processes, that create the dynamic mosaic landscape through their disturbance. . Are our forks and mechanical buckets so far removed from the snout and hooves of a Tamworth pig gouging and churning a considerable swathe of land in a few hours? Perhaps not, but we can safely say their grunts and squealing antics are very much more endearing to behold than ours. 

Moy Fierheller   Joint Head Gardener   June 2021 

What we’re reading 

Think Big. Act Wild. | Rewilding Britain 

UKMoths | Guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland 

Rewild your garden! – Bing video Dave Goulson 

Wildlife Gardening Home (wlgf.org) 

Mark saunders (@fittleworthhousegardens) • Instagram photos and videos 

PODCAST – Teasels Design (teasels-design.co.uk) 

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Our 12+ Policy

Knepp Wildland Safaris and campsite are all about the quiet and patient observation of nature.

Some of the species we are likely to encounter are shy or can be frightened by loud noises or sudden movements. Our campsite with open-air fire-pits, wood-burning stoves and an on-site pond is unsuitable for small children.

For this reason, our safaris, holiday cottages and campsite are suitable only for children of 12 and over.

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